Sitt Speaks in Coney Island and Says He Doesn't Want to Build Without "Support"
Developer Joe Sitt spent two hours in Coney Island last night making his pitch to residents and reporters and trying to drum up support for his embattled redevelopment plans. "It's in your hands," Mr. Sitt said of the future of project, noting that he is reluctant to build without the support of residents, the press and "to some degree, the blogs." More than 100 people filled the room and there were some raised voices and shouts from the crowd, not about the design of the project, but about the developer's commitment to delivering jobs to residents.
Mr. Sitt said that he had been cheered by some editorial support since the residential component of his plan was altered to include three hotels, including about 400 time share units. "I started to get beaten down," he said of coverage of controversy about the plan, but said that editorials such as one supporting his plan that is in this week's Brooklyn Paper "gave me some oomph."
The Sitt contingent arrived at the United Community Baptist Church, which is at W. 27th Street and Mermaid Avenue, in four Lincoln Town Cars. The group included Mr. Sitt's PR representatives from the Marino Organization and two large security guards who stood watch over the stage. (At the conclusion of the presentation, in fact, Mr. Sitt exited from the rear as a security guard stood ready to block anyone trying to approach the developer; he left the church after the crowd had thinned and did not speak to anyone lingering out front.)
Mr. Sitt referred to respected Coney Island historian Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project, noting that he had been quoted as saying that Mr. Sitt "can be hero of Coney Island" if he creates a project that respects its history and avoids things like housing in the amusement zone.
"That the way I want to do Coney Island," Mr. Sitt said.
Mr. Sitt's presented an amicable persona to the crowd, going out of his way to make sure that audience members were recognized and insisting that everyone call him "Joe" rather than "Mr. Sitt." At one point, he referred to the withdrawal of Takeru Kobayashi from the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest next week, but referred to the hot dog eating champ as "Hibachi."
Mr. Sitt appeared very aware of stories that had been written about his $1.5-$2 billion redevelopment plan and returned several times to criticism it had gotten in the press, also noting that "the blogs went against us." He said he is unwilling to build in Coney Island without full community support, media support and, even support from blogs. He said:
Unless we see support from this whole community--whether it's the community that lives here in Coney Island or the community that operates rides...and you know what, to some degree even the blogs, you know what, respectfully, I don't know if I want to build Coney Island.Mr. Sitt took note of a reporter from the New York Post who was sitting in the second row and said that he hoped that his coverage of the event would be positive and said that he would go home and "pray" for good press and community support.
The developer said that while his project had to turn a profit that it was less about money than most. "This is about making the world a better place," Mr. Sitt said. Several times he noted "We're not going to be building a fairyland garden," but rather a project that creates jobs and opportunities.
There was a long question and answer period after the remarks. At first, a Thor employee went through the crowd asking people to write questions on cards, but Mr. Sitt apparently rejected that approach, preferring that people directly ask questions. Most of the questions from the audience revolved around the critical community issue of jobs (Coney's unemployment rate is double the city's) and about the impact the development would have on existing residential neighborhoods. Mr. Sitt asked the community for "a groundswell of support" and said that "we're working hard to partner up with the Bloomberg Administration."
Whether or not the project goes forward, Mr. Sitt said, "really is in your hands and the support you give us or don't give us."
Many of the job-related questions were handled by Christopher Woods, who is developing employment plans for the community. Questions ranged from Mr. Sitt's willingness to hire residents with criminal records (yes, he said, they would do so) to education programs (they'll work on developing them).
Mr. Sitt said that he "hopes for a green light within 12-18 months of today to get going." Although Thor demolished a number of attractions over the winter, Mr. Sitt said "We are trying to keep things open" including Astroland. Last week, there were reports that Mr. Sitt would only keep Astroland open for another season if the city reached an agreement with him on zoning.
"Astroland did sell the business," he said. "Our goal is to make sure there is a similar concept there" as an interim use.
He closed by urging residents to "get the message out: Build, Joe, Build." Not everyone was impressed by meeting, however. One well-known Coney Island leader we spoke with after the session called it "an act of desperation" to try to rally support for an embattled plan that seems to have drawn criticism from all sides.